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David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus at UCLA, is editor of the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence, published in London. He has also written or edited five books, Assassination and Terrorism, The Morality of Terrorism, The Rationalization of Terrorism, Inside Terrorist Organizations and The Democratic Experience and Political Violence. On the day of the September 11 attacks, while trying to find his daughter, who teaches at a grade school three blocks from the World Trade Center, and phoning his wife, who was stuck in London, Rapoport fielded 49 calls from the media. Friday morning, Rapoport leaned back on a couch in his home tucked into Beverly Glen, closed his eyes and spoke at length on the media-dubbed “Attack on America,” on the history of terrorism and on what might happen now.
L.A. WEEKLY: Was there any sense in which this event was expected? How does a historian of terrorism wake up and respond to those images -- how does he react?
DAVID C. RAPOPORT: The only sense in which I felt like I expected it, I had said, “It‘s going to be conventional, not unconventional” -- meaning chemical and biological weapons. But did I imagine that they could have done that many hijackings and that they would have turned the planes into bombs? No, no, no. Nobody who I have talked to, who has dealt with the subject, had any inkling of something like that.
Where would you place this attack in the history of terrorism?
There’s no parallel in terms of its scope -- the numbers killed and the fact that it was a simultaneous operation. You know, you would do something like blow up the Marine barracks in Beirut, and you would kill 240 people. But these would be incidents that would follow each other, and they didn‘t involve large numbers. This was prepared, I would guess, for several years, certainly at least a year. I don’t think you can find anything that involves so many people over such a long period towards one action. And that‘s one reason why I’m surprised, very surprised, it wasn‘t picked up.
What effect do you believe this action will have on what I suppose could be called “the terrorist community”? Will it up the ante, or have they gone so far over the top that it might actually have a deflationary effect?
I think it will have both reactions. What you’re talking about are a variety of groups, which don‘t share the same view about tactics. Certain tactics offend certain groups. I have no doubt that there will be a great deal of horror among some terrorists -- they never thought in these terms. And I think that may be true of Islamic groups as well. On the other hand, there are individuals and groups who will take this as an inspiration. I suspect -- and I think this is counter to what most so-called experts will tell you -- that there will be more disenchantment than attraction. But I would not be surprised if I was wrong.
Few of us have more than a rudimentary understanding of terrorism in general, certainly that which occurred prior to the hostage-taking in Iran. Can you give us a precis?
Terrorism, while not the same thing as crime in the sense that crime always exists everywhere, is fairly deeply rooted, at least since the 1st century. It was originally religious activity and only became secular with the French Revolution. Then, with the Iranian Revolution, it was back to the religious. Of course, we’ve had Christian and Jewish terror, but it‘s predominantly and rightly associated with Islam, because in Islam you’ve had the greatest successes -- most importantly in the Iranian Revolution, which was not brought about by terror but then moved into sponsoring terrorist organizations.
And then Afghanistan was the great victory, because it defeated one of the secular superpowers. The enthusiasm the Afghan war generated in the Muslim world -- the sense of hope that they could do something -- was comparable to Spain in the 1930s, when, even though the antifascist movement was licked in Spain, it was given a kind of unity it lacked before.
And it changed the landscape.
My plea is that we remember a little more about our history, so we won‘t make the same mistakes. What we are always looking for is something new and unique. That’s one reason that I believe we missed this. We spent some $60 billion on anti-terrorism since 1993. Most of that money was for anticipated chemo-bio threats. All the conferences that I was invited to attend focused on chemo-bio.
I published a piece several years ago called “Terrorism and the Weapons of the Apocalypse,” and it was about the implications of Aum Shinrikyo [the Japanese cult that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway]. I said that these weapons are extraordinarily difficult to use, and I don‘t believe they can be used; terrorists are more likely going to do it with conventional weapons, like explosives. I was contacted by the city manager of San Antonio, and she said, “We have to develop plans for chemo-bio attack. Would you be interested in sharing information?” So I sent her this article, and after reading it she said, “You know, I agree with this, but we have all this money and we have to spend it.” That’s what happened -- they got the wrong threat.